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Lawyering Through Covid-19: Key Practice Changes One Year Later

March 11, 2021, 10:30 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we hear from Bloomberg Law reporters about how the pandemic is impacting a cross-section of practice groups and industries. Sign up to receive this column in your Inbox every Thursday morning.

Close readers of this column know I’m a golf fan. One way I know that it’s been a year since the pandemic truly began to change American life is that a year ago this week, the PGA Tour canceled one of its flagship tournaments, The PLAYERS Championship.

One year later, that tournament kicks off today with a smattering of fans at the course in Ponta Vedra, Florida. It’s been a profound season of change for golf. Courses across the country were busier than they had been in years. Club manufacturers saw a jump in retail sales.

Big Law has endured a similarly wild 12 months, and I’ve been reporting for months on the drastic changes facing the leadership of the country’s largest firms.

The changes aren’t specific to leadership. The pandemic has had a practice-level impact on firms and their clients.

Last May, reporters across the Bloomberg Law newsroom spoke with Big Law attorneys and in-house counsel about how the pandemic was impacting their work. As the one-year mark nears, we again checked in with lawyers in a variety of practice areas.

Here’s what they told us.

Brian Baxter, In-House Counsel

I’ve been hearing a lot from in-house attorneys about the consequences of being in a fully remote work environment.

Patricia Svilik is a former senior intellectual property lawyer at eBay Inc. who last year became an associate general counsel at Roofstock Inc., a real estate startup in the fintech space. She told me that since remote work began she’s seen a “dramatic uptick” in the amount of time she spends in meetings.

“I spend a much larger percent of the traditional workday on ‘intake,’ leaving much less time available for the writing and thought work that only attorneys can do,” said Svilik, adding she’s been impressed at how hard everyone on her team and outside the legal group has worked to adapted to remote work.

That strain has been particularly felt by working parents with school-age children. Svilik recalled one project manager telling her about their additional titles of “teacher’s aide, tech support, lunch lady, custodian, and afterschool babysitter.” Despite the stress, Svilik said she’s lucky to have such flexibility.

Many lawyers in the tech sector were already used to being remote and juggling the burdens that come with sharing a workspace with tiny housemates. Jamie Hurewitz, the new head of legal at Mattermost Inc., an open source file-sharing alternative to Slack, told me she created a website where in-house lawyers can join a listserv with remote resources for brainstorming and collaboration.

Hurewitz herself has picked up the extra jobs of elementary school teacher and daycare provider while working full-time, which usually means longer workdays. “This past year I’ve felt a lot more like a trauma counselor rather than a legal counselor,” she said.

Hurewitz said she’s been utilizing her “soft skills” to make sure her co-workers, most of whom are remote work veterans, don’t get burned out by being pulled in different directions. Hurewitz herself is an advocate for remote work, and she wants to help her legal peers understand the benefits.

“It allows for more flexibility in hiring and opens the company up to a more diverse and inclusive workforce, not to mention a better work-life balance for employees,” she said.

Paige Smith, Labor and Employment

The past year has somehow simultaneously moved more rapidly and slowly than I’ve ever experienced in my time as a reporter covering workplace law. One week the buzz was about whether or not wearing a mask at work could get you fired, and the next it was about Covid-19 vaccine-related guidance.

Pace of the developments aside, the last year has revolved around the magnetic forces of the pandemic and racial justice movement, according to Carlton Fields shareholder Rae Vann. She advises employers on workplace compliance matters, an area at the cross section of the two moments.

“Everything around Covid-19, for me, was unprecedented,” she said, and made the workplace effects of the H1N1 pandemic, one of the last major global disease outbreaks, look like a mere “blip on the radar.”

Vann said the last 12 months can be divided into two pandemic-focused stages. The first stage was spent helping employers navigate disability law concerns, worker leave issues, and illness at work, among a myriad of other issues. The second stage, which Vann said is ongoing, is more focused on vaccine-related matters, like mandates and incentives.

“We’ve all had to deal with tremendous challenges, personal and professional, but there have been slivers of opportunity from a practice perspective,” Vann said. A personal highlight was working with mid-sized companies to build, from the ground up, guiding policies and procedures to manage the situation.

Since last summer, workplace conversations around racial justice have been just as pressing for employers as discussions around the pandemic, she said.

“Our firm grappled with how to hear and respect the feelings and sentiments of employers who were and are hurting with everything we were dealing with last summer,” Vann said, of the internal and external pressures to respond to the racial justice movement.

They also had practical worries. For example, many employers were uneasy with the concept of “cancel culture” and the extent to which it could impact business, Vann said.

She’s now working with employers to use the moment to promote change “and to really re-commit ourselves to looking at these issues, and to make sure that we’re not passive bystanders and allowing unhealthy environments to exist by neglect.”

Matthew Bultman, IP

Intellectual property lawyers have told me in recent weeks that they’re working nonstop to help life sciences companies protect new inventions, while navigating tricky IP issues as researchers come together with breakneck speed to solve the Covid-19 pandemic.

Following the coronavirus outbreak, drug companies, governments, and research institutions have rushed to build partnerships in an effort to bring new vaccines and treatments to market. Deals have been getting done faster than ever before.

Lawyers tell me they’re moving quick to file patent applications for clients that want to protect their own IP before jumping into a partnership. They’ve also been busy working the phones—and video conference lines—with agencies like the patent office and the Food and Drug Administration.

“Everyone realizes we’re working under a lot of pressure, and in different circumstances than we have been in the past,” said Hogan Lovells attorney Kristin Connarn, an IP partner in the firm’s Boston office.

This momentum is starting to extend beyond Covid-19-related technologies. Connarn told me there’s a lot of interest, and investment dollars, in the life sciences space generally. At the same time, attorneys are seeing more partnerships between companies across industries, like biopharma and artificial intelligence.

“It tends to require a greater working knowledge on behalf of the attorneys of the sectors in which our clients operate, and then cross-disciplinary teams that understand collectively the different sectors and how they impact clients,” said Pavan Agarwal, a partner in Foley & Lardner’s D.C. office.

One lasting change I’ve heard about may be a focus on prepping new antiviral treatments for future pandemics, and finding ways to finance those efforts through different kinds of partnerships. Another may be a compression of the timeline to get deals done.

“I do think client expectations have been raised as to what can be done and how quickly things can be done,” said David McIntosh, head of the IP transactions group at Ropes & Gray in Boston.

Worth Your Time

On SPACs: Special purpose acquisition companies have become big business for Big Law, but a small firm that has been cutting deals in the hot area maintains a leadership position. I profiled Douglas Ellenoff and his firm Ellenoff Grossman & Schole this week, writing about how he became a true believer in SPACs long before their rise to fame and what he’s doing to fend off Big Law competition.

On Ethics: Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins were chided by a judge in the British Virgin Islands for their work on behalf of Chinese real estate company Nam Tai Property Inc. The judge said the firms’ work for the company’s directors could have been against the interest of its shareholders.

On In-House Moves: It was a busy week for in-house personnel moves. Moderna Inc. is hiring outgoing Novartis AG chief legal officer Shannon Thyme Klinger. Uber Technologies, Inc.’s former top lawyer Salle Yoo joined quantum computing company IonQ as chief legal officer. Peloton Interactive Inc. has a new compliance chief: Bertrand “Lance” Lanciault III, who formerly worked at StubHub Inc. and Walmart Inc. Meanwhile, top lawyers are retiring from Citigroup Inc. and Freddie Mac.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com; Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com; Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com; Matthew Bultman in New York at mbultman@correspondent.bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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